What became denigrated as calendar kitsch is now enjoying a revival among collectors of academic realism.
At first sight, you could be fooled into believing that these paintings have the signature of the same studio, though the only thing they have in common is their content. Early 20th century artists from India’s art schools were trained in a style that has since come to be identified as academic realism. Whether it was Hemen Mazumdar who bound his loyalty to the romantic Bengal school, or the court painter S G Thakur Singh, they could not but pay obeisance to the style that was all the rage among the buying cognoscenti.
Already, the stirrings of a bolder modern and Indian idiom were being felt, and in another decade they would sweep aside the sentimental idyll of realism. But the twenties and thirties were given to the pursuit of Indian art that had its origins in Western ideology. Begun by Raja Ravi Varma, the bath became a way of both titillating as also creating legitimacy around the semi-nude body. Ravi Varma concerned himself with ladies preparing for their bath, thus his Begum’s Bath and Preparing for the Bath included the process of disrobing. Later artists brought in a process of eroticisation with religion thrown in for good measure. Women in general, but particularly in Bengal, are known to offer their prayers at a temple followed by a ritual dip in the water tank clad in nothing but a simple, white saree. When wet, the cotton fabric turns transparent and clings enticingly to the body. Voila! Here was a way to bring what could otherwise have been considered prurient into a gentleman’s drawing room.
The subject became such a favourite, it still has followers in street art, but at the time it was taken up as a challenge by the likes of Mazumdar and Thakur Singh, who used it to show off their skills. Their inspiration lay in the West where the painting of nudes was a valid subject, but which in India would have caused a scandal — as, indeed, Amrita Sher-Gil’s works did, though her body of work in India was vastly different from her salon style in Europe.
About Mazumdar, enough is known — but S G Thakur Singh? In a sense, Thakur Singh subsumed his identity as court painter to the Indian government, losing therefore his popularity in a free market. Born in 1899, and winner of such awards as the Simla Fine Arts Society first prize in 1915, and the second prize from the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1924 (ironically for the first of his After Bath series), he was the quintessential court artist who accepted commissions from princely families and counted several maharajas as well as Lord Irwin and Lord Linlithgow among his patrons. He accepted museum and institutional commissions — for which he employed trainee artists to assist in his atelier, a fact he was loath to share publicly. He became popular for his portraits, his studies of womanhood where the subject was objectified, as well as his landscapes which tended towards the sentimental; his still-life compositions, somewhat more abundant than necessary, remain his weakest.
On his death in 1976, his estate passed to his son, S Paramjeet Singh, and is currently handled by his US-based grandson Harsimran Singh who is hoping to create awareness of his legacy. That this coincides with a revival of interest in the academic realism of the early twentieth century is happenstance, yet Thakur Singh, whose works hang at Rashtrapati Bhawan, will not have an easy task gaining that recognition. Because most of his work was based on commissions, precious little of it is in the public domain, and almost none of it was exhibited. As a result, posterity has not been kind and his scholarly value remains obscure and is still debatable.
Osian’s auctioned his 11” x 19” Sunset for Rs 10 lakh (against an estimate of Rs 6-9 lakh) in March this year, while an earlier lot from a 2008 sale, estimated at Rs 16-20 lakh, remained unsold. After Bath, shown on the estate website, has an estimated value of Rs 60-70 lakh, which appears steep (other works are more modestly valued), but Thakur Singh’s grandson argues that the “expert” pricing is based on the values of the best-known artists of that period, such as Jamini Roy and Abanindranath Tagore. He also makes the claim that the works on the site are “superior, in much better condition, bigger in size” and among the late artist’s “favourites”.
The family may not be in a hurry to flog his works, but Thakur Singh’s current opportunity lies among newer museums that need to fill in the chronological gaps in Indian art, collectors who have sensed the romance in the academic realism genre, and among the Sikh diaspora. But a scholarly review might be even more important if his bathing ladies are to find their due place in the art history of the country.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.